Thursday, December 3, 2009

first v. right: when news goes viral

Andrea Ragni, a former capstoner, forwarded this link to a ZDNet post by Ed Bott that illustrates everything that can go wrong when the first value of (internet) news becomes being first with the news. Clearly, being there first has always been important to news organizations, but add the blogosphere, and you've got yourself a real pickle.

Case in point, the so-called "Blak Screen of Death" Story that made its rounds all over cyberspace earlier this week:

On Friday, November 27, an obscure computer security company, Prevx, publishes a blog post accusing Microsoft of releasing security patches that cause catastrophic crashes in Windows PCs. The inflammatory headline reads: Black Screen woes could affect millions on Windows 7, Vista and XP. The post lacks even the most rudimentary technical details and is maddeningly vague. It goes unnoticed over the U.S. Thanksgiving weekend.

Early Monday morning, November 30, Jeremy Kirk of the IDG News service sends a story out on the wire that is picked up by IDG flagship publications PC World and ComputerWorld. Conveniently, the story is posted at 7:05AM Eastern Time, ensuring that it will be at the top of news sites as Americans drag back into work after the long holiday weekend.

Here’s the first headline as it appeared at PC World and ComputerWorld early Monday morning: Latest Microsoft patches cause black screen of death According to the accompanying story, the patches “cause some PCs to seize up and display a black screen, rendering the computer useless” for millions of Windows users. The security company “hasn’t contacted Microsoft yet” and “Microsoft officials could not be immediately reached for comment.”

The story is echoed by dozens of other publications within an hour, some pointing specifically to PC World as the source. The rush of coverage catapults the accusations into the mainstream. At some point that morning, Microsoft’s security team goes into “fire drill” mode.
And on and on. You can guess the punch line: the black screen of death? Not a problem. Never was:

After two full business days of relentlessly negative coverage for Microsoft, the noise from the echo chamber is deafening. More than 500 separate posts on mainstream tech sites and in blogs have amplified the original story, most of them simply repeating the accusations from the Prevx blog post with no original reporting or fact-checking. The story has now taken on a life of its own.

Finally, on Tuesday evening, Prevx backs down completely from the story, publishing a formal retraction and apologizing to Microsoft. Another follow-up post the next day from Prevx CEO and CTO Mel Morris tries to deny any responsibility for the damage. He includes this hilarious bit of understatement: “Regrettably, it is clear that our original blog post has been taken out of context and may have caused an inconvenience for Microsoft.”

From Andrea: "Ed Bott makes a good case for the reality that some journalists, especially in tech, are jeopardizing accuracy for the sake of real time reporting – in some cases not talking to any sources…craziness!"

Clearly. bk

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